The Economic Impact of Ill Health: A Growing Challenge for the UK

Long-term sickness and its impact on the UK economy

The UK is facing a growing economic challenge as the number of people unable to work due to long-term illness continues to rise. This trend, exacerbated by factors such as long Covid, NHS treatment delays, poor workplace practices, stress, and the impact of austerity, is hindering the country’s economic recovery. The consequences of ill health are not only affecting individuals but also have far-reaching implications for businesses struggling to fill vacancies and the overall state of the economy.

The Growing Problem of Long-Term Illness:

According to recent data released by the Office for National Statistics, the number of people classified as inactive due to long-term sickness has reached 2.8 million. This represents an increase of over 200,000 in the past year and a staggering 700,000 since the start of the pandemic in 2020. The high level of long-term illness helps explain why the UK’s workforce is 700,000 smaller than its pre-Covid level, resulting in a tight labor market and a stagnant economy.

The Economic Impact:

The British Chambers of Commerce has expressed growing concerns about the economic impact of inactivity due to ill health. This situation is affecting growth, inflation, and wages, as businesses struggle with skills shortages. The rise in long-term sickness is not a recent issue, as the UK has historically had a higher percentage of people inactive due to ill health compared to other advanced economies like Germany, France, and Italy. However, the combination of Covid and longer NHS waiting lists has exacerbated the problem in recent years.

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The Gender Disparity:

The Women’s Budget Group has highlighted a concerning gender disparity in the number of people inactive due to ill health. There are 200,000 more women than men in this category, with 1.5 million women and 1.3 million men affected. This discrepancy is not solely due to the pandemic but also reflects pre-existing trends. Women, particularly those in low-paid jobs, have been disproportionately impacted by both the pandemic and austerity measures implemented between 2010 and 2020.

Government Response:

The Department for Work and Pensions has stated that the government is already taking action to address the issue. Welfare reforms are projected to reduce the number of people on incapacity benefits by over 370,000. The government’s back-to-work plan aims to support over a million people, including those with disabilities and long-term health conditions, in finding and maintaining employment. However, experts caution against punitive benefit sanctions, emphasizing the need for proactive policies that prioritize prevention and tailored support for those on sick leave.

The Way Forward:

Addressing the economic impact of ill health requires a multi-faceted approach from the government and businesses. Employers can contribute by offering flexible working arrangements, investing in occupational health programs, and providing staff with medical insurance. Policymakers need to prioritize breaking down barriers to employment for individuals with health problems, focusing on occupational health and addressing stress in the workplace. The government must also tackle NHS waiting lists, recognizing the interconnectedness of health and economic policies.


The increasing number of individuals unable to work due to long-term illness poses a significant economic challenge for the UK. This trend, exacerbated by the pandemic and longer NHS waiting lists, has resulted in a smaller workforce, skills shortages, and a stagnant economy. Addressing this issue requires a comprehensive approach that includes preventative measures, tailored support for those on sick leave, and a focus on occupational health. The government and businesses must work together to ensure that individuals do not exit the labor market prematurely and to promote both economic prosperity and the well-being of the population.

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